In Peshawar’s Kapoor Haveli restoration, a glimpse of the contested history of evacuee properties

In the years immediately following the Partition, the political decisions taken to deal with evacuated properties went a long way in establishing the relationship that India and Pakistan shared with each other.

Jalil Ahmad knows Peshawar like the back of his hand. After all, he has been studying the heritage and architecture of the city for over three decades, often organising walks for tourists. But there is one mansion that has always been of particular interest, especially among film buffs, the ‘Kapoor Haveli’ at Dhaki Munawar Shah.

“People love to hear stories of how a young man born in the lanes of Peshawar, went to Bombay and became such a huge name in the film industry there and across the world,” says Ahmad as he cautiously records his responses to my questions over whatsapp, wary of the cross-border politics hovering over the conversation.

The Kapoor Haveli is where the great Raj Kapoor was born. Even in its dilapidated condition, the mansion has been occupying a special place in the heart of Peshawar. “Tourists and photographers are mesmerised by its unique wooden architecture, the lovely jharokhas (hanging balconies) and balconies,” narrates Ahmad. The Kapoor haveli also serves as the reminder of a shared history and identity between India and Pakistan, one that has remained intact despite the bloodbath of the Partition.

Last month the provincial government in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa announced its decision to buy the ancestral house of the Bollywood legend, conserve it and turn it into a museum. Apart from Kapoor Haveli, the government has also decided to take in its custody the ancestral house of another icon of Hindi cinema, Dilip Kumar, who was born in Peshawar in 1922 as Muhammad Yusuf Khan. While Kapoor’s residence was declared evacuee property in the 1960s, Kumar’s house has been lying vacant since the 1930s when his family moved to Bombay in search of better work opportunities. The move is being celebrated in Pakistan as a necessary step in chronicling the heritage of the country. But it is also indicative of the ways in which the government of Pakistan is dealing with a long-festering issue of evacuee properties, that had sprung up soon after the Radcliffe Line split the subcontinent into two countries in 1947.

“At heart, South Asia’s Partition story is about property — about the sin of breaking the sacrosanct bond with one’s land.”

The words penned down by professor of international relations, Pallavi Raghavan, in her recent book, ‘Animosity at bay: An alternative history of the India Pakistan relationship’, describe most fittingly the issue that arose with what was perhaps the biggest episode of migration in the subcontinent. Memories of the Partition are inevitably tied up with the homes that were left behind.

In this space, a couple of months back, oral historian Avina Kohli had penned down a deeply evocative account of her painstaking endeavour in tracing down her grandfather’s pre-Partition house at Sialkot. The enterprise revealed to her the fate of the house which is now a girls’ college and several other socio-economic aspects of ways in which the governments on both sides of the border were dealing with the problem of evacuated houses. It also underlined a most essential truth about the Partition, that the settlements made at the administrative level, did not really settle things for those who left lives behind. “Why else would their granddaughter search for her roots over five decades since?” she asks.

Also read: Tracing my grandparents’ pre-partition house, Kohli Kutya in Sialkot

A home left behind

In the years immediately following the Partition though, the political decisions taken to deal with evacuated properties went a long way in establishing the relationship that India and Pakistan shared with each other.

Historian Vazira Zamindar, in her celebrated book ‘The long Partition and the making of modern South Asia’, describes in great detail the legalities brought in place to ensure those who took flight could no longer return because their houses had come to be occupied by others. With the passage of the Evacuee Property (Preservation) Ordinances in September 1947, the office of the Custodian of Evacuee Property emerged. The initial role of the custodian was to take care of the property so long as the original occupants did not return.

What complicated the matter though was the West Punjab Economic Rehabilitation Ordinance alongside the evacuee property legislation, which then created the office of a rehabilitation commissioner who was empowered to take possession of abandoned properties and allot them to Muslim refugees for a period of one year. Later another ordinance was passed which ensured that the transfer of the property could only be done with permission of the custodian, thereby stripping the owner of most of his rights.

The Indian government responded with amending its own evacuee property legislation, so as to allow the custodian to allot its evacuated properties to displaced persons from West Pakistan. Moreover, it also decided that those refugees who were housed in the abandoned properties, could not be removed till such time that an alternative space could be arranged for them.

The government’s control over these properties became more permanent the moment their economic values came to be discussed. “The Indian government claimed that since the evacuee property left behind by non-Muslims was far greater in value than the evacuee property of Muslims in India — a difference it calculated to the sum of Rs 400 crore — the Pakistan government should pay India for it,” writes Zamindar. The mathematics of the situation being disadvantageous to Pakistan, the latter insisted that both sides allow the refugees to sell their individual properties at market value.

In the ensuing years, both the governments kept arguing over the fate of the evacuee properties, with each side passing one reactionary legislation after another in response to what the other side was doing. Strange developments took place in this legal battle over abandoned properties. For instance, an amendment made to the laws for a brief time defined an ‘evacuee’ as anybody who had left their homes and moved somewhere else. “So for instance, even if you moved within Delhi from Chawri Bazaar to the refugee camp in Purana Qila, you still came within the ambit of the Evacuee Property Act,” says Manav Kapur, who is currently doing his doctoral research on evacuee properties from Princeton University.

Then there emerged the concept of an ‘intending evacuee’, or someone seen as making preparation for his or her migration. “There were families who had their homes taken over because their relatives were studying in Pakistan and money had to be sent across for that purpose,” explains Kapur. Many Hindi film directors like Mehboob Khan and Abdur Rashid Kardar had their properties taken over since they were sending money to Pakistan for film distribution purposes.

Kapur also describes how the evacuee property laws on both sides were used as a tool for disciplining and surveilling the minorities. “Any person from the minority community suspected to be having links with the neighbour country or if anyone happened to arouse the ire of the district collector could have his property declared as evacuee property,” he says.

The effect of the evacuee property laws in emptying out minorities and dispossessing them was significant. “However, the realisation by the Indian state that Muslims were being dispossessed while living in India led at first to removal of the ‘intending evacuee’ clause in 1953 and the final abrogation of the law in its entirety in 1957,” writes Zamindar.

Interestingly, the evacuee property laws worked very differently in the eastern borders, where the houses left behind by the minorities were not used to compensate the incoming refugees. “There the refugees took over the houses left behind and kept sending rent across the border till the mid-50s when the law was abrogated,” says Kapur.

A decade later, after the India-Pakistan war of 1965, a new law was introduced by both governments. The Enemy Property Act of 1968, as it came to be called in India, allowed the government to take over any property left behind by those who had fled to Pakistan, without compensation. Now it was no longer an evacuated property, but rather an asset of the enemy country. Similar laws were passed on the other side of the border as well.

Kapur explained how the Falletis Hotel in Lahore, which was owned by the Oberois, was taken over by the Pakistan government under the enemy property laws. Similarly, the Punjab National Bank buildings in Lahore and Karachi were taken over.

“Most of the properties that were leftover from the evacuee property laws in India got carried over under the enemy property laws, and new pieces of properties were also targeted under the new act,” explains Raghavan over the phone. A case in point over here is that of the former king of Mahmudabad, Mohammad Amir Ahmad Khan. Khan’s assets are sprawled across large parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These include the Butler Palace, the Mahmudabad Mansion and the court in Lucknow’s Hazratganj. Khan left for Iraq in 1947 and later took Pakistani citizenship. In the 1960s, while he studying in Cambridge, he was informed of his properties being declared ‘enemy property’ and thereby taken over by the Government of India. In 1974, Khan petitioned the Indian government to return his assets and has ever since been embroiled in a bitter legal battle.

Dealing with the ‘enemy’s’ properties

Over the years, the Indian government has used the houses left behind for urban and cultural development. Raghavan explained how large parts of Khan Market in New Delhi consists of immovable assets left behind by Partition refugees, including the famous bookstore, Bahrisons. “The National School of Drama in Delhi is another such example. It was owned by the ruler of Bahawalpur who chose to join Pakistan,” says Raghavan. “The rule under which it was claimed by the government was the evacuee property legislation.”

At the same time, conservation specialists also point to the desperate need for state intervention in restoring many such evacuee properties which have not acquired iconic status. AGK Menon, chief consultant of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Delhi chapter, said that they had been documenting the evacuee properties in Old Delhi for the last several years. “Unlike the iconic Kapoor Haveli in Peshawar, the evacuee properties in Old Delhi are by and large anonymous. Many of them are nondescript buildings or houses taken over by the municipalities to be turned into schools, barat ghars etc. for public use,” says Menon. He says that about 120 to 130 such buildings had been documented and they had recommended that since they were public buildings, the Municipality could easily undertake conservation work as part of their upkeep and thereby demonstrate the benefits of this initiative for the owners of private properties to follow.

The decision of the Pakistan provincial government to restore the residences of Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar is being seen as part of their policy to celebrate historical and cultural figures belonging to undivided India. The ancestral house of Shahrukh Khan too lies in the same area of Peshawar.
Officials in Pakistan maintain that with three Bollywood celebrities hailing from this same area, the city deserves a museum celebrating the Hindi film industry.

“I feel it is because of the politics around minorities in Pakistan. This is part of the nostalgia in Pakistan towards the idea of a syncretic and shared past. The reopening of the Kartarpur corridor and the restoration of some Hindu temples is part of a similar effort,” says Kapur. Yet another instance on similar lines is the decision to restore and celebrate the ancestral property, school and village of the legendary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, located in the Punjab province.

Speaking about the need to celebrate the homes left behind by the Partition refugees, Raghavan says: “It is important to understand that the process of passing evacuee property legislations was very political and bitterly contested. It has been a long time since the Partition and we need to look at these properties in a more clear-eyed manner.”

“It is high time we see them as an opportunity to celebrate the legacy of an undivided India.”

Further reading

Animosity at bay: An alternative history of the India Pakistan relationship by Pallavi Raghavan

The long Partition and the making of modern South Asia by Vazira Zamindar

 

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